Understanding the Attributes: Alumni Giving

When colleges get it right, they produce graduates who are successful in their chosen path and have an affinity with and love for their alma mater. One of the best ways graduates can demonstrate that loyalty is by donating to their school. There are many reasons alumni give back to their college: to show appreciation for the education and development the school provided them; to provide others with a similar experience; to stay connected to the college community; and even to reap the social and emotional benefits associated with being a donor. Regardless of the reason for giving, a large number of alumni participate in their college’s annual fund drive, and colleges track very closely the level of giving each year. For a host of reasons, it is an important measure to many colleges. Not only does alumni giving help increase financial support for the college by virtue of the donations themselves, it also signals this particular college is well loved and supported by its graduates. Some education-focused charitable organizations even match a portion of alumni donations. The percentage of living alumni who donate to a college can also serve as a good indication of alumni satisfaction with the direction their college has charted for the future. Thus, many colleges keep a close eye on this number as it changes (upward, hopefully) year to year.

Most of the schools with very high percentages of alumni giving are private institutions. Often, graduates from large, publicly-funded universities are less likely to give to their school expressly because it receives governmen- tal funding. Small, private colleges dominate the Top 20 list for alumni donations, because they engender a high level of alumni loyalty and affinity. It is simply easier to generate this goodwill when you are dealing with a smaller number of students. Many smaller, private institutions (unlike publicly-funded ones) rely on the money received from alumni donations to fund operations and to increase their endowments. Out of necessity, many of these smaller, private schools have become very effective at raising money from alumni. The annual percentage of alumni giving ranges from a high of 60% (Princeton) to the low single digits at many schools.

The schools that rank highly in alumni donations also earned high marks on many other key attributes. Nearly all of them have long-standing traditions of alumni support based on the college’s historic reputation for excellence, and a campus life that binds students to the institution and to one another. As is often the case, money follows the heart.

Despite recent difficult economic times, ten schools continue to distinguish themselves for having graduates who demonstrate enduring love and financial support:

Key Factors

According to our research, being fully developed intellectually, making deep friendships during one’s undergradu- ate years and staying in close touch with those friends are the largest correlating factors in alumni giving. The schools that rank highest in alumni giving are able to create campus environments where students are academically challenged while developing deep bonds with each other and ties to their college community. These ties bind them for what appears to be a long-term, consistent level of financial support for their college. Smaller schools, with smaller class sizes and communities where students get to know other students, faculty and administrators, are best positioned to deliver these benefits to students. In fact, 39 of the Top 50 schools in alumni giving have fewer than 3,000 undergraduate students. Only two schools with more than 10,000 students appear in the Top 50 (University of Southern California and University of Pennsylvania).

Which larger schools create environments encouraging alumni financial support?

There are only three schools within the Top 25 for alumni giving percentage that have more than 3,000 students where 40% or more of their alumni donate.

This is an extraordinary accomplishment. There are eight other schools in the Top 50 with more than 3,000 undergraduates where 30% or more of their alumni donate:

There are only six large schools (over 10,000 students) among the Top 100 for alumni giving that achieve an alumni giving rate of 20% or greater. These are well known, popular schools that, despite being large, generate high levels of alumni support and correspondingly high revenue from alumni giving. These six schools are able to counter the penalty of size. Two of them are Ivy League schools (Cornell and Penn) whose gold-plated reputations help them offset large student-body sizes. The rest share another trait – that magic combination of a strong academic reputation and a high-profile athletic program. Even the Ivy League schools have relatively strong and well-followed athletics

Where sheer numbers make delivering consistent intellectual excellence, deep friendships and a close tie to the community a tougher task, activities that unify the college community and their alumni (such as strong athletic programs) can significantly increase the level of alumni support. There are, of course, many other ways large universities galvanize and unify their communities beyond athletics, but very few can do it like athletics can.